A long-time cannabis advocate, Kevin Ford Jr. founded Uplift National – formerly known as Uplift Maryland – with a mission to end cannabis stigma and prepare diverse communities to participate in this rapidly growing industry. He joined Wana Brands to talk about his own professional journey and how corporations can move beyond the message of anti-racism toward meaningful action.
WANA BRANDS: Tell me about your background. How did you come to the cannabis industry?
KEVIN FORD JR: I grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, which is the most affluent African American county in the United States. I went to Morehouse College, graduated from there in 2011 with a degree in marketing, and it was during that time that I really fell in love with cannabis. During my time in college, I really started to get migraines. And it was one day in particular — it was either Thanksgiving or Christmas break. I was just about to take my flight home. A migraine hit me, and they’re pretty debilitating. And so I ended up smoking three blunts. And then I was really actually able to carry and push myself to the airport and get on the plane. And then I slept on the plane and got off, and I was actually ok. That was the first time that I had specifically used cannabis medically, you know? I was amazed, and then I just wanted to learn more.
Around 2010, I had the opportunity to be a brand manager for a clothing line called Marijuana && Bullshit, and they were based out of Maryland. So within that, I had a lot of experience traveling out west and meeting with different brands and different dispensary owners. At the time, as you can imagine, it was early, so it was pretty much a legacy [“pre-legalization”] market. Unfortunately, I had some bad experiences with law enforcement myself, and that really pushed me and changed my thought process about cannabis. But even that whole time, when I was sitting in a jail cell for a couple days, it dawned on me that, “Yo, I must love cannabis.” Because I’m coming from a household of two doctors. My grandparents are doctors, all my aunts and uncles, and here I am sitting in a jail cell for weed. Right? So I’m like, “Dang, I’m throwing away everything that I have going on for weed.” And then I realized, I’m not throwing anything away. I’m really just ahead of my time.
That was in 2013, I believe. So fast forward to 2015, Maryland finally legalized medical cannabis and started the application process. I was a little bit behind at that time, so I didn’t apply on the first round. But my sister’s best friend, who’s basically like my little sister too, Hope Wiseman, [owner of the Maryland dispensary Mary and Main,] she really reeled me back in and said, “Hey, look, I know you, and this is what you need to be doing.” And so I quit my job with the county government to go and help them start their dispensary. From that experience, I realized that I had a higher knowledge level about cannabis than most of the other folks who were working with me. And then prior to – I mentioned that I worked at the county government – I was doing procurement in supplier diversity and development, basically just minority business development for contracts and things with the local government. And that experience, along with my knowledge in cannabis, pushed me to apply for a grant from the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission to do a business development and training program for minorities and women who were looking to apply for grower and processor licenses in 2019. It was in between that time frame, in the summer, where we actually started Uplift. What we originally started Uplift Maryland for was to do patient certification, solely. And then we moved into the whole education aspect, so that’s been quite interesting, and I guess that’s how we got our start in the cannabis industry.
WB: Share with me a little more about what Uplift is.
KF: Essentially, our mission is to end the stigma through education and training. I always kind of envisioned being an operator in the space, but there was a lack of opportunity, so this was the next best thing, creating an ancillary business to help give back at least the resources and information that I’ve been able to gather myself. So that’s where Uplift Maryland was born, and now we have transitioned as of 1/1 of this year into Uplift National to kind of spread that information and resources nationwide.
WB: I want to talk about something in the bio you sent us. There’s a phrase in it: “Kevin’s passion stems from wanting to take what the generation before [him] created, and then elevate that to the next level.” What building blocks do you feel like those prior generations gave you, and why is that connection so important to you?
KF: Coming from a medical family is really what I’m talking about, and the fact that traditional medicine has really shunned cannabis until recently. Not being a doctor myself, I still take pride in the fact that I’m still in a medical industry. And being able to take people’s thought processes to the next level about how we utilize cannabis in a fashion that is therapeutic for individuals but also creates economic development for the communities that surround us.
WB: You serve on the National Cannabis Industry Association’s State Regulatory Committee. What does that entail, and why was it important to you to take that position?
KF: I personally chose that committee over others. Most of the diverse folks in NCIA have traditionally served on the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Committee. So I thought it was important to have diverse voices on the other committees as well. And then, selfishly, I’d say, in our fight here in Maryland to try to legalize cannabis, I thought that it would substantiate myself even more, serving on a committee like that. I’m also a registered lobbyist in Maryland, so I wanted to bring a little bit of oomph behind myself. But it’s been a major learning experience thus far, having an opportunity to interact with the many diverse folks that are across the nation on this committee and in the different sub-committees. I actually serve on the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Sub-Committee for that committee, the Interstate Commerce Committee, as well as the Social Consumption Committee. So it’s exciting, I’ll say. I’m just really looking to learn more and to continue to forge different relationships with folks around the country as we continue to build out nationally.
WB: Sounds like you’re coming at it from all angles.
KF: Yeah, trying to. It can be a lot at times, but I think that’s the benefit of having a good team around you, and we’ve been able to really continue to onboard people, and we’re actually starting a new membership platform coming up soon. So that is definitely gonna be something that I think brings a little bit of a different flavor to the cannabis community. Just to highlight that a little bit, there’s really three aspects to it. The consumer aspect… I don’t know of an organization – aside from Americans for Safe Access, and they’re not really that active – that actually advocates for consumers. And there’s definitely not too many that congregate consumers for social reasons. So my thought process behind that is a really like a virtual consumption lounge type of concept. We’re also doing education and training, which is what we’ve been known for, and then also the advocacy and lobbying work as well. And we’re doing consulting too.
WB: I do want to step back and talk about broader issues. This year, in particular, we’ve seen a lot of companies seemingly wake up to racial injustice in a new way. After George Floyd was murdered this summer, you could not see an Instagram account that didn’t have some corporate message about Black Lives Matter. I’d like your perspective as a business owner, as a Black business owner, and as somebody who’s had negative experiences with law enforcement. How do you feel about that phenomenon? Is it a net gain? Does it make you frustrated or skeptical? And are there authentic and meaningful ways that brands can actually engage with this issue?
KF: There are definitely more tactics that would be more meaningful. In realness, economic opportunity is what lacks in our community. And honestly, we don’t need a message. We need jobs. We don’t need your support – any time of non-compensated type of support. For any businesses, we need you to provide financing. We need you to really turn the tide on what’s going on, not just make a statement so that you don’t get boycotted. Now, the other part of it is that we [Black consumers] do have extreme buying power, you know? Although we don’t have wealth, we have a lot of riches. And it’s on providing resources to help or educate folks on, again, how to change that tide or break that cycle of a lack of wealth. I think that is what everybody is really looking for, not just a word of sympathy.
And as far as George Floyd is concerned, watching that video, that could have been me. You know? That one time for the run-in with law enforcement that I told you about earlier, I was brutally beat. My eye was busted, still is a little droopy from that day. That was seven to eight years ago. So it was, honestly, it was hard to talk about. Most people who wanted to talk about it with me, I couldn’t even engage in the conversation, because I saw me. And I think that’s what a lot of these corporate conglomerates don’t understand – it’s not about you. I don’t want the sympathy. We want empathy, to be honest with you. We want you to actually understand our issues and then provide solutions for how we can fix them. You said that you were for Black Lives Matter. You said that you were for diversity, equity and inclusion. Now show me how you can really do that.
And I think the major part of that is, a lot of our community is still sitting here waiting on governments to mandate these corporate companies that this is what they need to do. But in fact, the corporate companies are the ones who really need to change the tide. No laws are changing without them behind it. They have all the money, all the lobbying power. If I go in there as an individual, or even representing a company that’s not paying me nearly as much as they’re getting paid, I don’t really have any pull, you know? It’s just important for us to really understand both sides of the coin in figuring out how we can have a compromise to make things shake on both sides. Because I do understand the industry is the industry, and it’s gonna keep moving forward. But at the same time, there’s enough for all of us out here. And if equity is what everybody’s screaming for, but you’re continuously giving us, you know, management opportunities, then that’s not – you’re not living up to what you’re saying that you’re really about. So I just implore corporate companies to take a deep look within and say, “Hey, maybe if you help somebody – if you lift us as you’re climbing, then that will essentially grow you.” People feel as if, if they reach back, then they are essentially taking themselves in a backwards direction. But lifting as you climb does not imply that you’re stopping your climb, you know?
W: Well, I think that’s an amazing answer. There’s so much in it that truly feels actionable, which is I think something that gets lost in these conversations a lot, to your point about message. And I really appreciate you being willing to talk it through with me, because I do understand that it’s a really emotional and traumatic subject in a lot of ways.
WB: Do you have any advice for young professionals, and particularly Black professionals, who are seeking to break into this industry?
KF: Number one is perseverance, ‘cause this is truly a long game. Just because you say that wanna do something doesn’t mean that you’re gonna have success overnight. You definitely are gonna have to put in the work to get to where you want to go. But two is, we all have certain skills and abilities, or maybe even educational backgrounds, that provide us the opportunity to work in different sectors of the industry. People always talk about plant-touching and ancillary. But what we do at Uplift, we always try to put professional services in a different category. Coming from a family of doctors, we’ve grown up around professionals our whole lives, so it’s so hard for me personally just to go around even family friends and talk about what I do. ‘Cause they’re like, “Oh, cannabis? That’s what you’re doing? Didn’t you just get arrested for that a couple years ago?” Bringing the professionalism to cannabis, especially from the Black lens, is what we need to start doing. And to end the stigma within our community and let people know that just ‘cause you smoke weed, it doesn’t mean you’re gonna sit on the couch and do nothing, you know?
WB: Absolutely. Is there anything that we haven’t touched on that you really want people to know about Uplift or how they can get involved?
KF: Absolutely. Really, the main message right now is to join our community. It actually launches on March 1st, but to be the first one in the know, we’re asking folks to go to our website, which is UpliftNational.org/connect, and fill out the questions on that, and we’ll definitely make sure to get back to you and make sure that you’re the first to know about the Uplift community.
WB: Amazing. I really appreciate you taking the time.
KF: All right, you have a great day.